Edinburgh Festival Fringe: When did the festival start, when did it expand and who is performing this year?

The Edinburgh Festival Fringe is set to run from August 2-26, amid concerns over the affordability of Scotland’s biggest cultural event

With more than 3,000 productions embracing all forms of the performing arts in its 2024 programme, there will be no other event on the planet to match the scale and variety on offer at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe this August.

More than 250 venues will be playing host to shows when the 77-year-old festival returns to the heart of the Scottish capital. An overall audience well in excess of two million will be flocking to everything from comedy and children’s shows to dance and drama, with thousands of performers hoping to make a name for themselves or simply draw inspiration from the experience.

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How did the Fringe begin?

The Fringe is an event born out of an act of rebellion that grew into the biggest celebration of culture on the planet.

When Scotland’s capital city launched an international arts festival in the aftermath of the Second World, eight theatre companies turned up uninvited to perform their own shows in any smaller venues in the city that they could lay their hands on, including the former Gateway Theatre on Leith Walk, the Little Theatre at the Pleasance and the New Victoria Cinema on Clerk Street.

Who performed in the early years?

The very first shows include a production of Macbeth by the Christine Orr Players, an amateur company based in Edinburgh, Edinburgh College of Art Theatre Group performing August Strindberg’s play Easter and the Scottish Community Drama Association’s production of The Anatomist, by James Bridie.

The trend for independently organised shows to accompany the more high-brow events in the city was to continue in subsequent years as the Edinburgh International Festival became firmly established, with late-night revues attracting critics once they had been to performances at the “official” festival.

By the mid 1950s, with growing numbers of shows being staged in church halls, community centres and university buildings, the first box office and guide to the unofficial shows on offer appeared.

By the end of the decade, when 19 companies were vying for audiences, an official Fringe Society had been launched to help participants find venues, promote shows, secure accommodation and sell tickets.

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When did the Fringe begin to expand?

By 1961, director Gerard Slevin was the first to issue the now-familiar warning the Fringe had become too big. Two decades later, nearly 500 companies were staging work across the city.

By then the event had helped launch the careers of John Cleese, Dudley Moore, Rowan Atkinson, Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Steven Berkoff, Donald Pleasence, Alan Rickman and Robin Williams.

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The Fringe moved into a new era in the 1980s thanks to the arrival of the so-called “super-venues” like the Assembly Rooms, which had previously been the official club for the International Festival, the Pleasance and the Gilded Balloon, three modern-day mainstays of the event.

Other key innovations included the creation of a free “Fringe Sunday” event, which moved from the High Street to Holyrood Park then the Meadows due to its increasing popularity.

Which famous names have appeared at the event?

Among the most sought-after honours at the festival each year are the Scotsman First Fringe First Awards, the longest-running prize across all of the city’s festivals. Dating back to 1973, they were instigated by The Scotsman's then arts editor, Allen Wright, to recognise new writing at the Fringe, particularly plays.

They would go on to recognise John Byrne, Billy Connolly, Stephen Fry, John Godber, David Harrower, Liz Lochhead, Edwin Morgan, David Greig, AL Kennedy, Zinnie Harris, Steven Berkoff, John McGrath, Daniel Kitson, Stef Smith, Cora Bissett, Adura Onashile, Mark Thomas and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.

The Edinburgh Comedy Award, which has been running since 1981, propelled the likes of Emma Thompson, Sean Hughes, Frank Skinner, Lee Evans, Dylan Moran and The League of Gentlemen in its early years. More recently, it has paved the way for the likes of Hannah Gadsby, Rose Matafeo and Richard Gadd to become TV stars.

The Fringe has become almost as famous for its size as the acts that have made a name for themselves at the event. More than a million tickets were sold for the first time in 2003, but that figure was to double just 11 years later and the three million mark was passed in 2019, the final festival to be held before the Covid pandemic. A smaller-scale festival would return in 2021.

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Who is performing at this year’s Fringe?

There have been widespread fears about the rising costs of accommodation and a shortage of available beds in the city impacting on the event.

However, this year’s event is already certain to be one of the biggest in the history of the Fringe, with more than 3,200 shows on sale so far a month ahead of the official programme launch.

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More than 220 shows have been announced so far as part of Assembly’s programme, which will unfold on 28 stages at the Assembly Rooms, George Square, the Assembly Hall on The Mound, the Checkpoint and Roxy venues, the Virgin hotel on the Cowgate and Dance Base in the Grassmarket.

Highlight in its programme include Camille O’Sullivan, who will be paying tribute to singers the music industry has lost in recent years, including Shane McGowan, Sinead O’Connor, Leonard Cohen and David Bowie, Australian comic Reuben Kaye, the Columbian circus show Corazón, a new musical inspired by the songs of KC and the Sunshine Band and a rock opera inspired by Mary, Queen of Scots.

The Pleasance, which will be returning to its famous courtyard, the dome at Potterrow and the EICC, will feature a one-man show from dancer and choreographer Wayne Sleep, the return of Sue Perkins, who first appeared at the Fringe with long-term comedy partner Mel Giedroyc more than 30 years ago and actress Miriam Margolyes, who will be exploring a life-long passion for the work of Charles Dickens.

Underbelly will be back in Bristo Square, George Square, the McEwan Hall and the Cowgate, and at its Circus Hub on the Meadows. Its line-up includes a Fringe comeback for Australian comic Hannah Gadsby, Irish sketch comedy group Foil Arms & Hog, a musical tribute to the TV show Come Dine With Me and a parody of the Oscar-winning movie Silence of the Lambs.

Although Gilded Balloon's longest-running venue at Teviot Row House is shut this year, shows will be going ahead at the National Museum of Scotland and its nearby Patter House venue on Chambers Street.

Highlights include Chemo Savvy, which will see Grant Stott, Jordan Young and Gail Watson pay tribute to the late Andy Gray with the launch of a new comedy-drama inspired by the star’s experiences after being diagnosed with leukaemia. Jack Docherty will be back at the Gilded Balloon in character as Scot Squad’s police chief Cameron Miekelson, while the venue’s line-up will also include rising Scots star Paul Black.

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Acts appearing at the Stand Comedy Club include Terry Christian, Katie Pritchard, Julia Sutherland, Tam Cowan, Mark Thomas, Darren McGarvey, Robin Grainger and Roger McGough. Its “in conversation” strand includes appearances from the politicians Andy Burnham, Caroline Lucas, Douglas Ross and Monica Lennon, as well as broadcasters Tom English, Chick Young, Stuart Cosgrove and Pat Nevin.

The 2024 Edinburgh Festival Fringe runs from August 2-26. Tickets are on sale via edfringe.com

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